Charles Sumner’s well-deserved injuries from Senator Preston Brook’s gutta-percha were slight according to his Capitol physician, though his condition were transformed into life-threatening when an opponent appeared and Sumner required a political edge.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Charles Sumner Plays the Victim
“The day after the [caning] attack, Senator [Henry] Wilson, of Massachusetts, denounced Brook’s action as “brutal, murderous and cowardly assault.” [Senator Andrew Pickens] Butler, who had that morning returned, retorted “You are a liar,” and Brooks soon challenged Wilson to a duel, but he declined, as did a Connecticut Congressman.
As Brooks challenged and Northern Senators and Representatives declined, the North grew restive and a young Massachusetts House member saw an opportunity. This was Anson Burlingame, an anti-slavery man ambitious to be elected to Sumner’s Senate seat, of which there had been some chance. He now made a vitriolic speech denouncing Brooks’ assault, concluding with the statement that, if challenged, he would fight.
Brooks challenged promptly, but Burlingame sought out Lewis D. Campbell, of Ohio, for help in devising an acceptance which would preserve his reputation but avert the duel. They finally picked the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, a ruse which worked. “I could not reach Canada,” Brooks later said, “without running the gauntlet of mobs and assassins, prisons and penitentiaries, bailiffs and constables . . . I might as well have been asked to fight on Boston Common.”
When Brooks asked that another place be selected for the meeting, the Northern papers spoke of his cowardice, and praised Burlingame to the skies. But they said nothing of Brooks’ renewed insistence and Burlingame’s stubborn declination to name a closer point. At length, Burlingame left Washington secretly for the Middle West, thus avoiding further danger. A few months later Brooks died.
When Sumner was carried home after the assault, Dr. Cornelius Boyle, one of the Capitol’s best-known physicians, who attended, found him suffering solely from flesh wounds. The next day Sumner told the Doctor that he had not lost a single day’s session that Congress and he wanted to go to the Senate.
But Burlingame’s comedy of dueling had a fine Massachusetts reaction; there was some talk of electing him to the Senate and Sumner’s friends grew worried. His brother arrived and began playing up the gravity of Sumner’s wounds. Articles began appearing in the Intelligencer that Sumner had had a relapse. Dr. Boyle, who was calling twice a day, never detected any sign of fever, nor a pulse beat higher than 82 and gave the Intelligencer a correction. Soon thereafter he was discharged from the case.
The anti-slavery surgeon then employed, understanding the situation, sent Sumner back to bed and published that his condition had become quite dangerous. The Senator came forth again to testify to the House Committee but soon left Washington . . . and carried his martyrdom across the seas to European spas.”
[Note: When Dr. Boyle was before the House Committee of Investigation, he was questioned by Representative Cobb as to the nature of Sumner’s injuries. “They are nothing but flesh wounds,” he answered and repeated. “How long need he be confined on account of these wounds?” Cobb continued. “His wounds do not necessarily confine him one moment,” Dr. Boyle answered. “He would have come to the Senate on Friday if I had recommended it . . . He could have come with safety, so far as his wounds are concerned . . . Mr. Sumner might have taken a carriage and driven as far as Baltimore [47 miles] on the next day without any injury.” See also New York Herald, May 25, 1856; Washington Union, May 28, June 19, 1856]
(The Eve of Conflict, Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War, George Fort Milton, Houghton Mifflin, 1934, pp. 236-237)